Clayton County elementary students return to in-person learning for first time

Jackson Elementary School principal William Greene takes the temperature of a student as she returns to school for in-person learning on Monday. After remaining all-remote for most of the academic year because of COVID-19 concerns, Clayton brought pre-kindergarten to fifth-graders back to school this week for the first time. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Jackson Elementary School principal William Greene takes the temperature of a student as she returns to school for in-person learning on Monday. After remaining all-remote for most of the academic year because of COVID-19 concerns, Clayton brought pre-kindergarten to fifth-graders back to school this week for the first time. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

When Harmony Brady talked about what she did during spring break last week, she spoke not from her home but from an actual classroom Monday inside Clayton County’s Jackson Elementary School.

“I went to a fair and a water park and I went on a trip for my birthday,” Harmony, who turned 8 on April 5, told her second-grade classmates as they looked on via remote computer screens.

After sticking with remote learning for most of the 2020-2021 academic year as COVID-19 infections waxed and waned, Clayton County pre-kindergarten to fifth grade students returned to school buildings for the first time Monday.

The district is the last school system in metro Atlanta to allow students the option of in-person instruction.

“We had some students, some families who were thriving” remotely, Clayton County Superintendent Morcease Beasley said as he greeted masked children and their parents making their way into the Jonesboro school. “And we had some that it didn’t work at all. So they were happy to have their kids back face-to-face.”

A cacophony of music, cheering staff and school bus brakes squealing air as they pulled up to Jackson Elementary made the day feel more like a traditional first day of class instead of sleepy spring morning near the end of the year.

Around 40% of the district’s 23,000 pre-kindergarten to 5th grade students signed up to attend in-person classes, Beasley said. They will do so on a hybrid schedule the first couple of weeks and then attend daily face-to-face classes until the last day of school May 25.

Middle and high school students will remain all virtual.

Marcelles Blue of Morrow said remote learning has served his son Tobias Smith well, in part because it eliminated the distractions that often come with being in a class of 20 or more children. But Tobias missed being with his friends and getting out of the house into the fresh air.

“Cabin fever has set in,” Blue said of Tobias’ learning remotely. “I’m looking forward for the next couple of weeks to see what school is going to be for him. I know he’s been wanting to see his friends and teachers.”

Clayton took preventative sanitization measures to make sure it was ready for the day, including purchasing 300 portable hand washing stations for $6,000 from Love Beyond Walls, a nonprofit organization that helps connect less fortunate people with community resources.

Kiska Lyons dropped off McKenzie Clemmons, 6, for her first day of in-person kindergarten. As is typical at the beginning of a new school year, the first day meant getting the tyke to the right teacher and settling her in class.

Lyons, who has been a caregiver for McKenzie for much of the year as the child’s parents worked, said the pandemic has demonstrated the value of an education system often taken for granted.

“Being remote is a learning curve for kids,” she said. “It’s difficult trying to keep them focused and engaged. For elementary school students, they definitely need to be in a school building.”

Staff writer Kristal Dixon contributed to this report.

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